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Gil Kane
Interviewed by Gary Groth,
Excerpted from The Comics Journal #186

This portion of the massive Gary Groth-conducted interview (that appeared originally in TCJ #'s 186 and 187) focuses on Kane's early years as an artist in the studio system of the comics industry's "Golden Age."

GARY GROTH: I'd like to start the interview with your very first professional contact with comics. Weren't you 16 years old?

GIL KANE: As a matter of fact, from the time I was 15, I was going up to the comics offices. [Joe] Kubert at 15 was already working -- I used to run into Kubert, he was a fat little blonde kid with glasses. He always looked well-to-do, dressed neatly. He ultimately developed this macho style of working out with weights and dressing casually. He lived in New Jersey, but he was already working for MLJ, he worked for all the companies that I worked for, preceding me by a year in all these places.

GROTH: Was he your age?

KANE: We're exactly the same age. He went to Music and Arts. I'd already been a fanatic of comics for years, so at 15 I started to go around to the various publishers where I met Kubert. When I went up to the offices at DC it was like stepping into a cathedral, at 480 Lexington Avenue. There was an enormous six-foot painting of Superman right on the wall opposite the entry as you came in.

GROTH: What year would this have been, Gil?

KANE: This was 1941. Murray Boltinoff was the guy who used to come out and take a look at the artwork, and there was not a sentimental bone in his body.

GROTH: He must have been very young.

KANE: Murray? Sure, he couldn't have been more than 25 or 26. He was an editor right from the start. My first job came the next year at 16. During my summer vacation, I went up and got a job working at MLJ in 1942 when Harry Shorten was the editor, and Scott Meredith nee Feldman was the associate editor. At that time Bob Montana had just started to create Archie for them because of the popularity of radio teenager Henry Aldrich. I started working in production and I worked there for three weeks but apparently they thought I was making too much noise and they fired me.

GROTH: [laughs] When you say you worked in production, what does that mean exactly?

KANE: I was putting borders on pages. The letterers would only put in the lettering, not the balloons, so I would put in the borders, balloons, and I'd finish up artwork -- whatever had to be done on a lesser scale. Within a couple of days I got a job with Jack Binder's agency. Jack Binder had a loft on Fifth Avenue and it just looked like an internment camp. There must have been 50 or 60 guys up there, all at drawing tables. You had to account for the paper that you took.

GROTH: What were you hired to do at Binder's agency?

KANE: I was hired as a penciler. They had Clem Weisbecker and a number of other guys. Bill Ward, the big girlie artist, at that time used to do very good delicate straight stuff. Finally I got an offer a week later. Scott Meredith came to my house since he only lived a few blocks from mine, and offered me my job back at MLJ. I took it. They not only hired me, but they changed my salary from $15 to $17 a week. This time I stayed. Scott Meredith was there a few months longer and then he went into the service. He was replaced by Vivian who married Dave Berg, and became the associate editor which means in effect she was the proofreader there and supervised under Harry Shorten's orders -- she made sure that certain things went out.

GROTH: Harry Shorten was who?

KANE: The editor at MLJ.

GROTH: You say you were initially fired from MLJ because you made too much noise? What does that mean?

KANE: They would take rubber cement and while a guy was working, they would circle him with the rubber cement, pour it on the floor, and drop a match. [Groth laughs] The fucking rubber cement would ignite, he'd jump up about four feet high, scare the living shit out of the guy, he'd throw himself over the work he'd just done. Or he'd be inking, and you would set fire to the little rag that descends from the inkwell that they wiped their brushes and pens on so they used to set fire to the bottom ends and they'd just burn upwards in no time and make a certain amount of excitement. Then for instance, we were in what they called the Western Union building, so next door to us, they had the women's locker room. Charlie Biro had pushed the glass through so we could watch these women coming into the locker room and changing their clothes or whatever the hell it was they did. So I was expendable.

GROTH: So Charlie Biro worked there?

KANE: They had just started Daredevil but his whole career up to then had been at MLJ. He did Steel Sterling and a couple of other characters based on Sgt. Quirt and Capt. Flagg, he did several variations of those. He had enormous vitality, he overwhelmed the room. In the elevators, when they used to ride up to work, he used to assault the woman elevator operators.

GROTH: What do you mean "assault"?

KANE: Oh, he'd grab for them.

GROTH: Jesus. How old was he compared to you?

KANE: He must have been around 27 at that time. I was 16.

GROTH: What were the physical working conditions like at MLJ?

KANE: Everybody worked at home, there was a little production room about the size of the living room of your house in Los Angeles.

GROTH: Small.

KANE: Fifteen-by-15, or 20-by-20 feet. So everybody was packed in. People used to come in and drop their stuff off. Bill Woolfolk was writing there at the time, a guy named Jerry something who used to write for radio, and Bob Montana, Irv Novick, Joe Edwards, Paul Reinman. There was Sam Schwartz who is still doing Archie and who at that time was ghosting Joe Jinks which was a syndicated strip. The guys who came in to finish their lettering, a couple of inkers who worked there permanently in the office because they got all their inking assignments from Harry [Shorten], so whatever was needed to be done was there -- and you didn't have to do an entire story, they would just throw you a couple of pages, somebody else would do a couple of pages, and those were the conditions under which a lot of the stuff was done. All of the penciling was consistently done by one person and the inking was whoever could finish on time. Bob Montana was only about 22 years old at the time.

GROTH: Did you know him?

KANE: Oh yeah, we used to go out for lunch all the time because he stayed at MLJ until he went into service.

GROTH: What was he like?

KANE: He was a terrific guy. He was nice, and like everybody else, you ultimately get to really dislike the publisher. They also ran out of this office a couple of girlie magazines and they also published really shitty pulp. There was a guy named Robert Lowndes who you may have heard of only because he goes back to the early pulp days and was still their editor, he was their last editor of the pulp magazines. Everything was being published concurrently. The publishers were Louis Silberkleit, John Goldwater, and Morris Coyne.

GROTH: Hence the initials MLJ.

KANE: Right. Ultimately, Coyne left the company, Silberkleit got the pulps, and they tried to develop a paperback line. It was Goldwater who got the comics. Silberkleit was pushed to a silent partner, and Goldwater was the operating personality, he was the editor-in-chief publisher.

GROTH: Had they published pulps before they published comics?

KANE: Yes, as a matter of fact they were partners with Martin Goodman. And before that all of them worked for Independent News, for Sampliner. They started to see that pulps and comics cost no money to turn out and they brought back an enormous return. Martin Goodman left Sampliner and Independent News but stayed friendly with Jack Liebowitz, the head of DC up until the time that they opened up the final Marvel thing in 1960.

GROTH: Is it your impression that they segued from pulps to comics?

KANE: Yes, comics were taking over... the girlie magazines, incidentally, were photographed right there in the office [laughter]. At night they'd get these women in who would pull up their skirts and show their thighs and wear rolled up stockings or stockings with garters. It was great! The photography used to go on there and I was too young to do anything but stare.... They used to have good times.

GROTH: I can well imagine.

KANE: Then the war became a real problem and along with other shortages, they started to have paper problems. They had an allotment of paper. DC was so shrewd -- Liebowitz saw it coming, and they not only owned paper mills, but they set up all sorts of titles for themselves so whenever they had new magazines, they could claim the allotment on the basis of this magazine that was supposedly in circulation. In other words, DC was never harmed by the paper shortages. At that time there must have been 12 or 13 comic book companies working out of New York City. Fawcett had their own comic books, Bluebolt Comics, Fiction House had their thing there, Eisner and Iger had their studios, Quality, Manny Demby, Harry Chesler, Bernie Baily, Jack Binder were also agents. Ace Publications used to have their own comics line. Louis Fiersat, for whom Harvey Kurtzman and I worked, had a two-man shop.

GROTH: When you were temporarily fired from MLJ you went to Jack Binder's studio. What was the physical environment like?

KANE: It was one large room somewhere on one of the upper floors of an older building on Fifth Avenue.

GROTH: Midtown?

KANE: Right. At that time, something like 40 or 50 artists penciling or inking or lettering were all sitting at these different tables doing their specialty and in effect getting work that was solicited by Jack Binder. They never had to step away from the board, the work was all given to them, they got paid either by the page which was a very cut rate, like $2 or $3 a page, or else they got a salary. Eisner and Iger used to pay salaries of $18 and $19 a week for people like Louie Fine. This was a little later on. A guy like Clem Weisbecker also got more, a very fine artist, a painter and sculptor, as several of these guys were. Irving Novick came into comics from advertising, he hated comics, always held himself above it, but the economic situation was that there wasn't enough of that work out there, and all of a sudden there was this market.

GROTH: How long did you work at Binder's?

KANE: I worked there a couple of weeks.

GROTH: Did you know Binder at all?

KANE: No, I met him, he asked my name and I said it was Eli Katz and he said, "Jesus, you're right out of the Bible, right?" Loved him right away. [laughter]

GROTH: Do you know how he established a shop?

KANE: Binder had had a relationship with the people up at Fawcett, and Fawcett started to turn out comic books with Captain Marvel. Binder had a connection with people who were editors and such. In fact, [his brother] Otto Binder was the writer of Captain Marvel. So Jack became the agency for practically all of Fawcett's work for years. They did this freelance work also, but he got a lot of contracted work. He did Mary Marvel himself.

GROTH: So Jack Binder was an artist?

KANE: Yes, he started out as a science fiction artist, a terrible science fiction artist. I would say incompetent might not be too strong a word. There was a guy I was friendly with named Al Bare, he later worked for years for Charlie Biro during the late '40s and early '50s, he was a wonderful watercolorist, absolutely superb. They had a whole roster of guys, in fact these agencies were like Ellis Island, you know? Coming into the business, you'd pass through these little agencies until you got to understand what was happening in the business, unless you were really able to have a style strong enough to go directly to the publishers. But usually that didn't work out. The publishers were like syndicates. For instance, the guys that DC hired in 1936, those guys were still working there years later. It was only the war that broke the situation. You couldn't get into these places, they wouldn't hire new people. When they hired Mort Meskin to do Vigilante, he had come over from MLJ and he was hired because some of the writers from MLJ recommended him and the first thing he did for them was Vigilante and it turned out to be a smash, he was a brilliant artist then who hit like a ton of dynamite. So that loosened them up a little. They were prepared also when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby left Captain America at just about the same time, and made a deal with them. But generally speaking, people weren't fired, art jobs were very hard to get, so something really calamitous had to happen to a person who was working there in order for you to find a space. George Russo was working in production there for about nine years, just inking and coloring, he was a superb colorist, and adventurous colorist. He had the only original panels I knew of Tarzan and Prince Valiant. It was years before they let him pencil.

GROTH: How did Binder actually get his work?

KANE: Most of the publishers were impulse publishers -- guys who worked as distributors and decided to go into comics. Some publishers were already established who didn't have a comics department but overnight wanted a comics department. Instead of hiring artists and going through the whole thing, they would do what Marvel did, which was that when Marvel started in business, they hired Lloyd Jacquet and his agency. They created the Human Torch and the Submariner.

GROTH: At Binder's shop, were all the functions broken down?

KANE: There were pencilers, inkers, letterers, and background artists.

GROTH: So it was like an assembly line.

KANE: It was exactly an assembly line. You could look into infinity down these rows of drawing tables.

GROTH: And what did you do there?

KANE: I was a penciler.

GROTH: So you went from MLJ as just a clean-up person to --

KANE: To an incompetent penciler at Binder. They weren't terribly happy with what I was doing. But when I was rehired by MLJ three weeks later, not only did they put me back into the production department and give me an increase, they gave me my first job, which was "Inspector Bentley of Scotland Yard" in Pep Comics, and then they gave me a whole issue of the Shield and Dusty, one of their leading books.

GROTH: To pencil?

KANE: Right.

GROTH: What was the quality control like at Binder and MLJ?

KANE: At Binder it was stiffer than it was at MLJ. At Binder they weren't happy with my stuff, and at MLJ, I got a foothold. As a matter of fact, Joe Kubert was inking there at the time and Paul Reinman was working there, but I managed to get my feet under me and I did several things for them, I wasn't their pride and joy but I got one assignment after another until finally they gave me enough assignments so I was able to quit after three or four months because they needed me as a penciler. But I was also a big mouth, I started to develop a troubled relationship with Harry Shorten.

GROTH: What would his title have been?

KANE: Harry Shorten was the Editor in Chief. I was not too smart and constantly mouthed off and didn't know anything. When I look back I don't know how the hell he ever took it. Finally he fired me. I was there for about seven or eight months all told.

GROTH: So you were fired a second time from MLJ.

KANE: That was the second time, yeah.

GROTH: Were you on salary?

KANE: I was on salary, but freelance was paying $5 a pencil. My salary was 17 bucks a week, up to 20 bucks a week finally before I left that to do full-time penciling. As a matter of fact, I didn't even have a drawing table or a light or anything because I never had a professional job in my life. So when I went home to do this freelance, all I had was a lap board. I had to work in the living room under the living room light in the ceiling and finally someone said to me, "Why don't you get yourself a drawing board?" So they ordered a drawing board for me. But where the fuck did they deliver the drawing board? They delivered the drawing board right to the office on Chambers Street in New York. So I excused myself and I put the drawing board, a real, fucking drawing board, on my back! I carried it several blocks, then down 100 steps into the subway. Luckily it was during the afternoon so there was no traffic. I got onto the train, and my subway stop was Fulton Street in Brooklyn which was the heart of the East New York section and it was all the way uphill. I walked ten fucking blocks uphill with that fucking board on my back -- can you imagine? It's such an immigrant experience -- I can't describe it as anything else!

GROTH: [laughs] Well it was a good thing you were such a strapping young man.

KANE: Yeah, right. As soon as I dropped it off, I took the subway back to New York and work.

GROTH: When you penciled pages, they would first give you a written script?

KANE: Yes. Finally a guy named Harry Sahle had Jansen over from Carl Burgos who was doing the Human Torch. Then Harry left Jacquet and instead of coming to Marvel, he came to MLJ and started doing straight stuff. When Montana went into the service the publishers were afraid. Archie was already their biggest selling title and as luck would have it, Harry Sahle did an effective imitation of it. Harry Sahle ultimately went over to [Busy] Arnold's. He left Archie and a guy named Bill Vigoda, Abe Vigoda's brother -- you know the old joke about Abe Vigoda, don't you? -- If Abe Vigoda died, you'd be the ugliest man in the world. [Laughter] So his brother Bill was a nice guy, a younger brother, and he successfully did Archie, evolving the style for the next 20 years.

GROTH: So you were fired from MLJ.

KANE: Yeah, and there was a real shortage of artists, but I was fired anyhow.

GROTH: Was that fairly traumatic?

KANE: Well, yeah. I got a job at Marvel but that's a story in itself. The thing was, I was only 16-and-a-half years old, there were a number of offices, I would just make the rounds and everybody turned me down but I went ultimately to Quality Comics and there was a guy named John Beardsley who was the editor there who was a friend of Joe Simon's, and he said he thinks that Joe Simon needed an assistant. So he called Simon, they sent me over to Tudor City, and DC maintained a room for them up there, a studio. I went in and met Jack [Kirby] and Simon for the first time and they had a letterer there named Ferguson who was sort of the king of the letterers and they used to work in this one room. I was hired to do as many Boy Commando, Newsboy Legion, and Sandman stories as I could. They gave me scripts and they would do the splashes and they would have it inked. The stuff was just terrible. They took it, got somebody to ink it, Jack and Joe Simon would pencil, ink, and splash really knockout stuff, and they'd send it in as part of their page count to DC because they knew they were both going into service and they just wanted to get as much money together as possible. Also they had a piece of the book, but I didn't know that at the time.

GROTH: Did you ink Simon's book?

KANE: No, I never did. I was there for six months -- first Joe Simon went into the Coast Guard in late spring and during the summer Jack finally gave up the studio and started to work right in the bullpen at DC. He went in mid-summer. I remember Mort Meskin saying that he just hated Jack working up there because Jack would sit down, working on those 13-by-18 page sizes and he would simply draw five to seven pages a day -- once I saw him do ten pages in a fucking day -- just incredibly beautiful. I mean, he demoralized everybody he worked next to.

GROTH: They were good pages?

KANE: They were great. Meskin, who was a superb artist, and at that time he was really rolling, used to look at that stuff and just eat his heart out because it was so strong.

GROTH: Did you ever hear a story that Meskin could not work on a blank page so Simon had to give him pages that were ruled in order for him to start on them, otherwise he would just stare at the page?

KANE: That might be. DC used to print up all of their pages, they were the only company that did it. They used to print up the page frames and layouts for the panel separations, and lettering lines. They did that for years.

GROTH: A grid.

KANE: Yeah, a lettering grid. That would be printed in blue. So Meskin got used to working on it probably.

GROTH: What was Simon like?

KANE: Simon was business-like. He did all the handling, all the talking, he did all the standing. Jack was always sitting and working. Jack would take the scripts and he'd either write them or re-write them. Jack was simply a workhorse who never sweated. It just came to him. Simon was a nice guy who was much more realistically attuned to the world. He was better educated than Jack. Jack I don't think ever did anything more than high school and I think Simon went to college.

GROTH: Come to think of it Gil, if you were 16, why weren't you in school?

KANE: I left school.

GROTH: Did you drop out?

KANE: I was in my last year in high school. I was 16 and I'd already started my last year but I'd already gotten my job the summer before at MLJ, so I didn't want to give up my job. I quit school in the last grade. I was working there and it was a very easy-going job, Ferguson, the letterer, used to teach me how to fight dirty. He was a toothless guy who had an enormous amount of vitality and vigor. He used to tell me about the cooties he picked up in World War I. He was a nice guy and he was such a good letterer, he was unmatchable, everybody used him. But ultimately Simon and Kirby got him a permanent position. He worked there, and when they went into service, I ended up working for Bernie Baily who was also running an agency.

GROTH: How long did you work for Simon?

KANE: About six months.

GROTH: What was Simon like to work for as compared to Binder and MLJ?

KANE: He was relaxed. He talked to you. I never felt condescension. I never was aware that I was a student and ignorant and 16, you know? Jack was straightaway, he used to share confidences with me about himself, about his life. Simon wasn't like that, Simon wasn't my pal. But Simon was easy-going.

GROTH: Was it a 9-to-5 job?

KANE: No, I would do everything at home because there wasn't any room up there.

GROTH: So they'd give you the scripts and you'd take them home?

KANE: He would give me a script, I would take it home, I would bring him penciled pages, they would tell me what changes to make, if I could make them, and then they'd write me up my check and that was it. On occasion I had to spend the day with them.

GROTH: Were you paid on a per-piece basis?

KANE: I was paid by the page and right on the spot, by Simon.

GROTH: Was it understood that you owned nothing of this?

KANE: Oh yeah, absolutely. I was lucky to get through the door there. Finally Jack went into service and DC gave me a Newsboy Legion to handle. I brought it in, they hardly even looked at it. They had an associate editor there, a guy named Dave something-or-other, a fucking tyrant, and he said, "Beat it kid!" and they just threw me out of there. After Simon and Kirby left for service I was given the Newsboy Legion script by Jack just before they left. They just threw me out.

GROTH: One other question about Simon: He was an artist too, and he always maintained that his and Kirby's collaboration was 50/50.

KANE: No, that's absolutely untrue. First of all there was a guy named Charles Nicholas, who used to do all of the inking that Jack and Simon didn't do. Simon used to do splashes and covers, but Charles Nicholas, after a while, did the inside of all of the stuff. We know that Jack penciled every single thing they did. Simon only inked a fraction of what they did. Simon was an effective inker on those splashes and everything, he developed a very elaborate style. However, Jack was his own best inker, he was superb. He did most of the Captain America splashes.

GROTH: Do you know who wrote that stuff?

KANE: Fran Herron who was one of the editors up at Fawcett. He ultimately moved over to DC. He wrote some of that stuff. Jack wrote some of it, he used to write all the Vision stories. Jack told me he used to write, pencil, and ink practically a whole Vision story in one day when he was at Marvel.

GROTH: Jesus. And how many pages were the stories?

KANE: Six to eight pages. It was unbelievable. It probably took him about two days, but it was a miracle because every job was brilliant. Even if it was casual, it was brilliant. When I take a look at Louie Fine's stuff now, it just doesn't compare to what Jack showed continuously, a real level of excellence.

GROTH: You got to know Jack [Kirby] at that time?

KANE: Yeah, he used to confide, he used to talk intimately with me as a co-worker. I never felt anything except kindness and friendship.

GROTH: Was he as off-the-wall --

KANE: He wasn't off-the-wall at all. He was just a nice guy who seemed unassuming and modest. But I was only 16, Jack was 25, nine years older. He's a year older than Simon.

GROTH: Did you pal around with him outside the office?

KANE: Oh no, nothing like that. When his wife used to come up, I used to get so uncomfortable with the two of them there that I had to leave. It was familiar, you know? But still it was enough to show that they were warming up. [Groth laughs] So I would just sigh and go home. I worked at home anyhow. But Jack was relaxed and easy. I didn't see how odd Jack was until Jack came back to DC many years later after the collapse of Prize Comics. I never saw him during those years. DC used to throw the best Christmas parties of anyone. They would take Grand Central Palace, a whole floor of it in their own building, 480 Lexington Avenue. Grand Central Palace was about four floors down, and they would rent the entire floor in this enormous building, and they'd have a Christmas party where hundreds of people would come. Jack and Joe would always show up, and I would go over to Jack, and it was like he hardly remembered me.

GROTH: [laughs] Now when did these Christmas parties start?

KANE: When I started working there again in the late '40s again at DC, they were going full tilt.

GROTH: So you spent six or seven months at --

KANE: With Jack and Joe at DC. Then I was hired by Bernie Baily. I was already 17 at this point, and it was my last year before I went into the service. I met Carmine [Infantino] again at Bernie's and he and I formed a partnership as penciler and inker -- I was penciler and he was inker. We worked for Bernie, he was on salary and I was working freelance. A lot of guys were leaving Bernie's -- there were some very good guys there despite the artist shortage, but I'm telling you, jobs were just like syndicate jobs: somebody had to leave or go into the service. Bill Everett had to leave so a guy named Mort Lawrence got the job of doing Sub Mariner. It was like hitting the lottery. All of a sudden you went from $30 a week to $150 a week. It's not possible to tell you what $150 meant in those days.

GROTH: Why were they paying so much money?

KANE: They paid higher page rates. Don't forget that the agents got a good portion of the page rate for himself. You only got dreck when you worked for an agent.

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